As Eric and I close out #WOTSWEEK – our indie-publishing journey to the Toronto Word On The Street Festival this Sunday – we’d planned that the theme of today’s post would be, “This is how we got here.”
Only how big is that topic?
Just in general, how did we become these particular versions of ourselves? How did we arrive at this specific place and time? How did we wind up at Taco Bell at four in the afternoon wearing sequined booty shorts and carrying a Glock 9? (Eric, not me.) What decisions were made? It’s an almost endless series of questions that eventually and inevitably leads back to your parents’ gonads, which, gross.
So I tried to narrow it down.
Two people started typing at each other on Twitter and ended up publishing books together and flying to Canada to hawk them at the country’s largest book fair. Oh, and they also have this weird dysfunctional relationship where she spends a large majority of the time threatening to torture and maim him and sometimes he dresses up like a Viking.
Only that’s fucking crazydoodles, right?
I could sit here and try to outline When It All Started and Then We Did This and Here’s What Happened After That, but what I really want to talk to you about, I think, is How Do You Art.
I know that for some people, referring to anything as “art” is considered simultaneously naïve and pretentious (kinda gets you comin’ and goin’, doesn’t it?), but fuck that. We don’t gotta get all twee about it – not around here, at least. Art doesn’t have to be schmancy, what with the leatherbound folios and million-dollar VanGoghs.
Art is just… itself. Whatever its self may look or sound or be like.
Whether you’re making something for you, your friends, your family, your work – a diary, a cake, a back deck, a presentation – far as I’m concerned, that’s art. You’re creating, making something that wasn’t there before. Create = art. That’s my philosophy. I’m a simple gal. Evil, but simple.
Though naturally, beyond one’s basic definition of “art,” there are folks who’ll try to define “great art,” or “mediocre art,” or “bad art.”
But if you’ve ever stuck a two year-old’s drawing to the fridge, you know that real art has nothing to do with a bunch of fusty old arbiters of “greatness”. Real art is the pride swelling in your chest when you look at your kid’s picture, that strange sublimation of emotion into physicality – a miracle in itself – the alchemy of mind into matter. You can feel art – whether it’s satisfaction in the accomplishment, joy in its interpretation, or sorrow in its finity.
The last few years, even when I had TV gigs, I think I was just stumbling around like a drunk in the dark, searching for How Do You Art. It took a long time, and a lot of floundering, and experimenting time and again, in medium and voice, seeing what worked, what helped, what didn’t – and now, less than 24 hours away from venturing off to Canada to sell my indie books — I think I’ve finally landed on the five most important answers to How Do You Art, which I now humbly share with you.
Eric set a shitload of deadlines.
In a booth at the IHOP, typing on his laptop (wow, I just had to fight the urge to break out into some slam poetry), he built a calendar of days leading up to the Word On The Street Festival, sort of like one of those Advent Calendars leading up to Christmas – except on this one, instead of finding a piece of candy behind every little door, you got a flaming skull shrieking, “You’re going to miss this deadline, fail miserably in front of everyone, and never again have a healthy sense of self-esteem!” Thus the first and most important answer to
How Do You Art:
You have to say, “Fuck it.”
Just fuck it right in its earhole. The fear, the dread, the seemingly insurmountable expectations and odds – fuck ‘em all in their earholes. If you’re not comfortable telling your fear to fuck itself in the earhole (fearhole?), maybe you could find a friend willing to do it for you. I’ll do it for you. I’m eminently qualified, as I’m fluent in Profanity and think fear should be told to fuck off more often.
Nine months ago, I called 2013 my Year Of Glorious Mistakes, after Neil Gaiman’s New Year’s Wish, specifically for these lines:
Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things,
learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.
That’s when I made the conscious and conscientious decision to take more creative risks this year – even if I failed, even if I failed super-spectacularly badly and in public – because that quote led me to realize the second answer to
How Do You Art:
You really gotta wanna change shit up.
And I wanted that change. I’d been doing TV for fifteen years, but now I was feeling this itch to do something… more.
Y’see, scripts’ strict outlines are useful, functional – but they leave something to be desired in the free jazz solo of the mind. I’d always written fiction on the side – stories I rarely showed anyone – most of them left unfinished whenever I went off to work on another show – but now I came back to the abandoned pieces and started completing them, slowly, steadily.
Then, for the first time since I started writing for TV, I finally admitted to myself that I also really wanted to write books – novels and short stories. And I could’ve gone through the whole query-letter-manuscript-submission process – hell, I probably could’ve had my manager’s company do it for me – but more than I wanted the “legitimacy” conferred by a big-name publisher, I wanted my books.
I didn’t want to wait for someone to give me permission to make art, or to tell me what kind of art was required, or what kind of art would sell, or, as on some TV shows, for someone to literally re-art my art simply because it was their prerogative and they felt like it.
I wanted to trust my instincts and all the valuable lessons I’d learned over the last fifteen years. I wanted to write about what I wanted, how I wanted, and share it with people the way I wanted. Goddammit, I wanted to bet on myself, instead of just sitting around, hoping someone else would bet on me – because (as is the norm in Hollywood) I’d been doing the latter for the last decade and a half, and lemme tell you, that process instills a sense of learned helplessness that can be almost impossible to shake off.
At the most fundamental level, I wanted to do art the way I wanted to do art.
And y’all, that realization was pants-shittingly terrifying.
Because what the fuck did I know besides TV? The fuck did I know from books, besides reading them? What gave me the idea that I could write books? That I possessed whatever special skill set you needed? Just because I knew how to write a script didn’t mean I knew how to write a book. (And truthfully, the two styles are so vastly different that switching between them is like switching between languages. You invariably find yourself mixing syntax.)
And what about all the Hollywood people I’d worked with or might work with? Would they sneer at my indie books and think, “Oh, she must just be doing this because she’s not on a show”? “Oh, she must not be able to find a ‘real’ publisher”? Would they discount me and/or my work because I chose a path that wasn’t the traditional “way things are done”? Would they think I was ridiculous just for wanting to do something I called “art”?
Jesus Christ, Martha, what will the neighbors say?
And so we return to, “Fuck it in its fearhole.”
Actually, while you’re working on How Do You Art, you’ll be amazed how many times you’ll return to this little ditty: for instance, every single solitary goddamn day and sometimes several times in the space of a single minute. You have to get really, really accustomed to telling the fear to fuck off, because it is a vicious and persistent bastard that doesn’t care that it’s 2 a.m. and you’re nestled snugly in your bed. The fear will find you. Especially when you’re just sorta meandering around full of philosophical ideals, like I was, with no concrete objective in mind. Which brings us to the next answer to
How Do You Art:
Set a goal. Any goal.
This is where the Word On The Street Festival came in for me. Eric invited me to Toronto to sell my own books… except… you know… at that point I didn’t have any fucking books. He knew I wanted to publish them, but since I was still in the fumbling stages – being willing to take a risk, knowing I wanted something to change, but not yet knowing what project to pursue – Word On The Street gave me a definitive finish line. So I decided to make two books out of material I’d already written, publish them independently, and have them ready by September. It was a big goal (back then I had no idea how big), but we had lots of advance time, a growing partnership, and between us, enough Ativan to kill a small village. It felt doable.
Now, once you’ve established some sort of finish line – “I am going to run a 5K”; “I am going to grow roses in this plot of earth”; “I am going to eat this entire chocolate cake in one sitting” – I think your brain solidifies it as A Task. Your brain is used to completing A Task. Read this blog. Take the garbage out. Pee when your bladder is full. Your brain sees a finish line and thinks, “Dude, cool, okay. I know how to do A Task.” We, as humans, are hardwired to finish Tasks – it’s why we have that nagging sensation when we’ve forgotten something – even our subconscious harbors an urge towards completion.
Of course, the harder the Task, the more we want to say, “Screw it. It’s too difficult. It’s too long. It’s too much work. It’s too complicated. It’s too big. It’s too weird. It’s too too too too too ad infinitum.” But in reality, that’s the fear talking again, and we’ve already discussed how to deal with that sumbitch. So if you’re willing to say “Fuck it,” if you’re willing to change, if you have a goal… what’s next?
How Do You Art:
Don’t you fucking quit.
Don’t give up, don’t give in, don’t lie down, don’t concede, don’t delay, don’t deny, don’t make excuses, don’t listen to doomsayers, don’t drown in mental bullshit.
Find the time, the resources, the answers, find support.
Find a way – any way – to not quit, and do that.
This step is probably the easiest to explain, but the hardest to carry out – because it is going to be hard, and you are going to want to quit.
You are going to want to quit eight googolplex times. You are going to think of a thousand other things you’d rather be doing. You’re going to resent all the time you spend not doing those other things. You’re going to want to sigh, “This piece isn’t coming out the way I planned, so I give up.”
Well, guess what? Sometimes your art doesn’t do what you think you want it to. Sometimes your genius intellectual brain has a fabulously intricate design, but the true inside you – the part of your soul where the art actually comes from – has its own ideas about what you’re really trying to do and say, and then you might as well just get your big fat head out of its way, jackass. Because that piece of your soul is a better artist than your big fat genius head could ever dream of being (not that the head can’t be useful in its own way). So if your art takes an unexpected left turn at Albuquerque? Open the throttle, see where the turn takes you, and follow it all the way to the end of the road. Don’t quit because you think you’re locked into an idea. You’re not. Ever. One of the most pleasurable things about creating art is listening to that true you, learning what it’s capable of, instead of demanding that it only do the tricks you’ve taught it.
Understand: you will create some crappy shit.
Leaving aside the fusty arbiters of “greatness,” I’ve written scripts I cannot bear to look at, blog entries that make me want to crawl in a hole, poetry that makes me want to gun down a room full of myselves, fiction that leaves a sour metal fug on my tongue like I’ve sucked on a mouthful of batteries. And ugh. After all your hard work, all your not quitting, that you might wind up with something you don’t like? Fuuuuuuck.
So start over again.
And don’t quit again.
Because eventually you will create something you’re happy with, and if you’re really lucky, you’ll create something you’re ecstatic with. And sometimes that can keep you from wanting to quit for a really long while, which is nice. But – and this is THE most important part of this step – you will never get to the point where you don’t want to quit…
…if you quit now.
So don’t you fucking quit. Don’t you ever, ever fucking quit.
And this final tip can help with that:
How Do You Art:
Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.
Maybe you’re an artist, maybe you’re a mother, maybe you’re a guy who installs those giant panes of glass on skyscrapers.
What do these people have in common?
TO DO THEIR JOBS WELL, THEY ALL NEED A LITTLE FUCKIN’ HELP, MAN.
Imagine that this 700-lb. cheeseburger is your art. It’s HUGE. You’ve got like, 500 lbs. of meat, 100 lbs. of cheese, 50 lbs. of tomatoes, 20 lbs. of pickles — and that’s not even counting the raising of the cows, the aging of the cheese, the harvesting of the tomatoes, the brining of the pickles. One person could not make this hamburger alone. Or possibly they could, but throw in the chopping and the frying and the baking (who has an oven big enough for those buns?) — that mono-sourced hamburger would be cold and rotting by the time it reached the hungry masses. However, because many people played their individual parts in concert — The Lettuce Guy, The Cheese Guy, The Bun In The Oven Guy — instead we have a delicious 700-lb. meal of Massive Myocardial Infarction.
But here’s the thing: a lot of artists I know — writers, painters, crafters — like to work alone. I like to work alone. I like to work alone for long, long, long stretches of time because I’m an exceedingly slow writer and I would literally rather pluck every hair off my head and eat it before I show my first drafts to anyone. But just because I like to work alone doesn’t mean I only work alone.
And “alone” is a wobbly concept when it comes to art, anyway. Anyone who seeks to create things is affected by people who create the same things. A painter doesn’t become a painter by never looking at a painting. A writer doesn’t become a writer by never reading. Even bypassing the art angle, everyone is influenced by everyone else anyway, for better or worse. You pick shit up from your parents, your siblings, your teachers, your friends, your lovers, your heroes, your enemies. Aside from our factory settings, we are all a melange of people we’ve known, seen, and heard of — each of us a unique mosaic of influence.
But influence is not collaboration.
Collaboration implies active intent. It means admitting that this particular cheeseburger needs more than what you’re able to give it on your own. It means inviting someone into your art, into your thoughts, into your process — and then asking them for their help: their opinion, their advice, even their labor. Take it from me, this can make you feel extremely vulnerable — I hail from the Don’t Never Owe Nobody Nothin’ Clan — and is a major reason why it took me so fucking long to be willing to collaborate outside of a TV writers’ room. I mean, I knew I could hack it for television (so to speak), but when it came to the art I did for myself? I was too afraid of being told, “That’s terrible. Stop writing. I’m calling the police.” But once I’d picked up the first four steps of How Do You Art, that fear just seemed like wasted energy. I’d already said “fuck it,” I wanted change, I’d picked a goal, I wasn’t going to quit –
– only HOLY SHIT THERE WAS SO MUCH WORK TO DO!
But thankfully, I’d agreed to collaborate on this venture with Eric: I’d get the books together, he’d do the layout, we’d team up on design and marketing (which, when we realized we knew jack-shitall about design and marketing, meant we needed @quotergal to collaborate with us, too). Out of the probably 500 separate tasks we had to accomplish — note: not even an exaggeration — if we hadn’t split them up three ways, there would be no Word On The Street Festival for me. There would be no new books. There would be no 200 MB blog post that you’re almost to the end of, I promise. The art that exists now would never have existed. Not without collaboration. Never.
So find your people. Find people you trust and let them into your art, and allow them to help you. If you trust them enough to let them in, it’s a good bet they already want to help you. And they know things. Things you don’t know. Their own influence-mosaic may contain crucial tiles you need, talents you don’t possess. Even just a fresh pair of eyes to look at something you’ve been staring at for months, until you can’t see the trees for the forest. Let someone else take watch. Let people help you.
Let them make you better.
This is @quotergal, making my art better.
Some folks think they’re “collaborating” when all they’re really doing is looking for approbation. When they give someone a story they’ve written, and that someone says, “Your main character is great — but you may want to rethink that scene where he kicks a puppy to death,” all they hear — all they want to hear — is “Your main character is great — blah blah bloop gosh, you’re perfect already.” Needless to say, this is not collaboration.
Collaboration requires mutual respect between all parties, clear and honest communication, a willingness to try out other people’s ideas, an ability to eat humble pie, and sometimes the backbone to say, “I appreciate your take on this, but I am trying to accomplish something different.” Collaboration requires a vision, passion, patience, fearlessness, and perseverance.
More than anything, though, it requires a commitment to art above ego.
And in my opinion, that is the ultimate lesson in
How You Do Art.